Editor’s note: it’s been more than four months since I have left Southern California, and I am so excited to live vicariously through our amazing Sam Spector on this trip! Don’t miss all his writing by clicking here. Also, as circumstances are constantly changing in this time of global pandemic, please check current conditions and governmental recommendations before planning a trip.
It is summer of 2020 and if you bring up the local election on Orcas Island, the conversation turns tense quickly. Mayor Luna is in a fierce reelection battle but is currently leading in the polls. I asked a local Mayor Luna supporter about her thoughts on the other candidates. “Mayor Luna has experience and steps up in challenging situations, her opponent, on the other hand is a chicken!” one local commented. This charge that Mayor Luna’s challenger is a chicken is of course complete slander… he is actually a rooster, and Mayor Luna is a golden retriever. Every year, this island, which many celebrities call their vacation home, holds its charity-benefit election where local pets are sponsored for island mayor. This type of election seems appropriate for a place that has stunning views at every turn and kind locals who learn your name even when you are a weekend tourist, where your moments of tranquility will be interrupted solely by the cry of a bald eagle overhead, and where spotting deer is as common as coming across people. In a world that has become overrun by chaos, Orcas Island represents an example of place that shows how things should be, and it could be your destination for summer 2020. (Editor’s note: again, please remember to check local recommendations before booking travel right now so as not to overload any systems during Covid. And travel responsibly, practicing distancing, wearing a mask, and other CDC-recommended prevention techniques.)
Campaign signs are everywhere!
With my passport sadly collecting dust, I decided that a trip to Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands in Washington State, where I would be about a mile away from the maritime border with Canada, would be the place I should go. The San Juan Islands are often considered the jewel of the Pacific Northwest, and if you want to escape the smoldering heat of wherever else you live, the 70 degree average summer temperature will be reason enough to entice you to visit this slice of paradise. Though there are upwards of 400 islands that comprise the San Juans, in Washington there are four that are populated and tourist friendly: the main, more populated San Juan Island; the tiny, 240-person sparsely populated Shaw Island; the scenic, quiet Lopez Island; and the mountainous Orcas Island. Each island has its own flavor and one could easily spend a week island hopping and experiencing each one, but also each island has plenty to do that would make for a wonderful week or weekend. Orcas Island feels to me to have a bit of the best of every island and thus was the island that I chose for a few days of respite.
Getting to Orcas Island is part of the fun itself. In order to get to the San Juan Islands, you will need to go through the beautiful seaside town of Anacortes. While there, take a detour to Deception Pass State Park, featuring a beautiful rocky beach and one of the most striking bridges that you will find anywhere connecting the mainland to Whidbey Island. In Anacortes, you and your vehicle will take a ferry to Orcas Island (make sure you make your ferry reservation online in advance!). The hourlong boat journey weaving through the various forested islands will be one of the most scenic moments in your lifetime.
The ferry is part of the fun
Once you arrive at Orcas Island, you have two choices: jump into an action-packed adventure or relax while watching stunning, 180-degree views from anywhere on the island of the various bays and harbors as well as Rosario Strait. This access to the water offers more than breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, but rather plenty of activity. There are numerous places on the island where you can either rent sea kayaks or hire a guide to take you around to some of Orcas’ best spots. Though the island is actually named for a Spanish explorer, it is not uncommon to see pods of orca whales year-round with many claiming that these islands are the best place to see them. Aboard a whale-watching expedition you may see orcas and also gray, minke, and humpback whales with tour operators guaranteeing that you will spot these magnificent creatures. The bays and harbors also provide beaches with tidepools where you can find many crabs, shellfish, and other marine life. If you prefer freshwater though, not to worry, Orcas Island has you covered with several lakes within the island, with perhaps the best being the beautiful Cascade Lake inside the Moran State Park. This lake offers camping, a 2-mile scenic loop-trail around the perimeter, and also serves as a great place for swimming or renting a paddle boat or kayak.
While in the Moran State Park, another must-do is Mt. Constitution, the 2,398-foot mountain, which is the highest peak in the San Juan Islands and the second highest island summit in the lower 48 states. Whether you ambitiously hike the nearly 7-mile steep incline or drive the winding road to the top, the clearing that awaits will leave a lifelong impression. At the summit, be dazzled as you look over the island, the surrounding islands, the Rosario Strait, and beyond that mighty Mt. Baker, one of Washington’s five volcanic peaks. Pack a lunch for your journey so that you can sit and truly take in one of the natural treasures that America has to offer.
The view from Mt. Constitution
At the bottom of the mountain, enjoy a short (less than one mile) hike to a series of waterfalls ending with the impressive Cascade Falls at the bottom. While you hike, there is a decent chance that the only other journeyers that you will encounter are the indigenous deer that do not seem to be fazed by people.
Cascade Falls. Just look at all that green!
If Orcas Island is sounding a bit rugged for you thus far, well the town of Eastsound with its quaint restaurants and art galleries might be perfect for you. Peruse a bookstore, eat a locally made ice cream in the park, or admire the various paintings and sculptures for sale in the seaside shops as you stroll at your leisure. Even before Governor Jay Inslee instituted a mask requirement for the state, one was enforced in the islands and locals will politely remind tourists to please put on a mask if they are seen without one. Likewise, hotels are only booking at half occupancy to restrict exposure to COVID-19; in fact at the time of this writing (July 7, 2020), there were only 20 confirmed cases and no deaths in the collective San Juan Islands out of 16,000 inhabitants, making me feel safer traveling than staying home.
One of the locals came to greet me!
Orcas Island is also a dream destination for any foodie with its many farm-to-table restaurants throughout the island. Whether it is eating oysters from one of the local oyster farms (which this rabbi did not do but heard were amazing) or eating tapas at Eastsound’s Barnacle Restaurant, the flavors of Orcas will awake your taste buds. I would like to give a special thank you for the many great suggestions and hospitality from the staff at Visit San Juans, who turned me on to the best restaurant of the trip, Kingfish in West Sound. Enjoy the view from their patio of the marina and indulge on one of the local beers or wines from the island that they offer while you choose from a variety of culinary options. The personable and lively chef will be sure to proudly let you know that much of the produce was picked by him personally at the OrcaSong Farm on the island. Though I am not known as the healthiest eater, the freshness of the Salish Sablefish Salad was reason enough to want to come back to Orcas Island. Yet, the highlight of the dinner was (typical for me) the dessert, the Orca-“Sage” ice cream, made with local sage and chamomile cookies picked from the farm. But as locals know Kingfish to be the place for decadent dining on the island, be sure to make reservations as those who did not walked away sadly to go eat somewhere else.
Such an awesome meal at Kingfish!!
Whether you are outdoorsy or prefer a small town bed and breakfast relaxing getaway, a romantic trip for two or a family-friendly adventure, while staying safe during these difficult times, make the San Juan Islands, and especially Orcas, your destination for summer 2020; the only downside is that it is hard to go home when you are leaving paradise.
Note: thank you to Visit San Juans for graciously hosting me at Kingfish. It was a stunning meal!
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17 thoughts on “Orcas Island: A Jewel in the Northwest”
Hi Jonathan, thanks for the great write up again. We’re in Anacortes now, are you still in the area?
I am not. I wasn’t there at all, actually. This was written by one of my staff writers who was there a couple weeks ago.
The people of the San Juan Island are in a very hard place with trying to keep the virus out, we do not want tourists bring in virus. They want all travel stopped to the islands so the don’t DIE. This is their life, not you vacation!
Please do not visit the San Juan islands right now. We are still in phase 2 and non-essential travel like tourism is not allowed. The ferry system also does not want non-essential travelers. We have minimal ferries and islanders are having a hard time getting space for essential travel needs. Save your trip for another time. Sending a reporter here to advertise the islands was horribly irresponsible.
Hi Beth. Thank you for your comment. I certainly appreciate that people don’t want visitors in a time like this. However, responsible travel is still being encouraged by the visitor’s bureau and local businesses. Things also may have changed in the past several weeks since Sam and his wife were there. Also please note I don’t send anyone anywhere, just encourage people to share stories of travel they do anyway.
But, our county government, the WSF (ferries) and the Governor said NO non-local travel. In the past week, we’ve had a 25% increase in Covid cases. Please take down this blog until after the pandemic.
If the past week has changed circumstances, of course we won’t encourage people to defy governmental orders. I’m not going to take down the post, but I will add a disclaimer at the top to check current conditions and governmental recommendations before planning a trip.
Unfortunately, the visitors bureau and local businesses, no matter how much they’re promoting it, are violating the governor’s orders. We are in Phase 2 currently which prohibits all non-essential travel between counties. Your advertisement and article promoting people to come here in direct violation of the Safe Start protocol is grossly irresponsible as a journalist and puts our community at risk.
As someone who has lived full time in the San Juan’s for almost 20 years, I commend your excellent write-up about Orcas. I just want to plead with any readers to avoid travel here until we have a vaccine for Covid-19. Almost a third of our residents are over 65, including myself and my husband. We have a relatively low incidence rate of Covid here but only because we have been isolating and using every precaution. Now that visitors have started coming the rate of Covid has more than doubled in just a few weeks. I know the numbers look low and encourage you to visit someday, just not now please.
Thank you for the comment. These are challenging times trying to balance safety (priority number one) with economic solvency. I hope that residents of Orcas are able to enjoy both, and that if visitors do come, they do so safely and responsibly. We are all in this together!
Please take down your advertising. We are inundated with ads featuring the san Juan’s which in turn is causing increased pressure on our ferries and essential personnel on all islands. The ferries are already operating at limited capacity due to lack of crew. Which in turn is a crunch on essential goods and services to our local community. Do you really think a disclaimer at the top of your enticing ad will discourage any one considering you say make this your summer getaway.
Please have some consideration for the vulnerable island community and have a heart. Thank you from all of the people that are trying to do the right thing and are staying home.
I have added a second disclaimer in the body of the piece. I hope this suffices. I am not encouraging anyone to do anything that would endanger others, but also realize that this may never go away, that people will travel, and that encouraging people to do so responsibly, both now and in the uncertain future, is the best way to handle things, in my opinion.
There is a plan in place to reopen safely. You’re allowed to have your opinion on wether or not this will go away — but we do know for certain right now that it is not under control in the state of WA. In the future it might be and then travel and tourists will be welcome here. Until then, please read the crowd and archive this post to be published at a date where we, as a community, can benefit from it. Now is not that time.
Thank you for agreeing to add the disclaimer, but the ban by the Governor and our county Health Officer regarding non-local travel has been in existence for months. Visit San Juans is a vested interest private organization. They are NOT the regulatory agencies.
There has been a ban on non-essential travel on the Washington State Ferries for months. The Washington State Board of Health explicitly states they do not want people traveling across county lines for non-essential travel. That has also been the case for months.
Residents of the San Juans (including many business owners) DO NOT WANT tourists here during the pandemic. There is a small contingent that is promoting tourism despite state health orders and the wishes of many islanders. Our community is older, and our hospital cannot handle Covid cases. Please do not come here.
Please take this article down. It is so entirely rude to continue to promote tourism against the wishes of those who live here who may fall ill or die from this pandemic and negligent promotions and travelers. Please stop – we are dealing with enough.
Since when do “travelers” (who distinguish themselves from the low class “tourists”) ever take any real consideration of the locals’ wishes? From pot hunters in the American Southwest to hikers on Mt Everest leaving gear strewn in their wake, to those who end up boiling in the hot springs or gored by bison at Yellowstone for their Insta posts, to those swimming with captive dolphins in FL- when have they actually put the needs of the communities they visit ahead of their own bucket list of adventure? Good luck getting any traction on having this or similar blogs about how great it is to visit the San Juans (or any other beautiful but fragile place) removed.
I’m going to close with this, and not allow further redundant comments. I get that some of the residents of Orcas Island aren’t happy with this post, and I understand why. I truly do. There are also business owners who have thanked us for writing about their home, knowing that their livelihoods depend on tourist income. I am comfortable with the multiple disclaimers that I have added into the article, and will not be taking it down. I am sorry if that makes you angry; it isn’t my intention to anger anyone, just to allow a writer to explain why he loved visiting your home. To those of you who have been civil in your comments, thank you. To those who have not, I am sorry we won’t be able to find common ground here.
Almost every article I post angers someone, and likewise makes others happy. It’s a hard line to walk, and I try to be as responsible as possible in presenting safe, fact-based concepts and travel ideas. I will continue to do so.